On Tuesday, January 14, 2003, precisely 17 days before the dawn of the Chinese Year of the Black Sheep, 18,000 General Electric workers began a strike to protest a hike in their health care insurance co-payments[i] the pioneering Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós fell from its Number One perch on the U.S. charts[ii] and President George W. Bush signed the National Flood Insurance Act, nominated a new secretary of the treasury and modified duty-free treatment for beneficiary developing countries, including Afghanistan[iii].
I know those and a host of other facts about that unexceptional date in January because it also happens to be my father’s last day on Earth. Along with his mother and sister, he perished in a dreadful tragedy even Shakespeare couldn’t have conceived. But before I go into the details, I should mention that while I’m good at remembering a few very specific things in my life, I am otherwise very bad at recalling dates. I often forget people’s birthdays—along with their names—although I fortunately have a detective’s talent for remembering faces. It’s as if my failure to remember dates has something to do with my desire to make our collective life here on earth a little less painful and closer to heaven. It is said time does not exist in paradise. There are no clocks or watches there; a thousand years can go by and it would seem like a few months.
And so I have never attached much importance to keeping chronological records of my family or personal life. I find such details ephemeral in the grander scheme of things. It’s as if the image-laden memories of all the cities, landmarks and outdoor vacation spots I have visited with my parents, siblings and friends are effortlessly etched in my brain—without a trace of the corresponding year, sometimes even the decade.
January 14, 2003 is different. It is my Hiroshima. Just as millions of Japanese and international peace activists every year observe the world’s first atomic explosion over a civilian population on August 6, 1945, I find myself pondering questions of human cruelty and justice at the beginning of every New Year.
My father, Mardiros Iskenderian, had terminal cancer. He was an Armenian immigrant from Lebanon whose life read like one of those self-made business success stories politicians like to dish out on campaign trails. Along with my grandparents, he founded Zankou Chicken, one of Southern California’s most successful and recognizable brands in what some experts refer to as the “slow-cooked fast food” restaurant sector. The Los Angeles Times famously remarked that Zankou might be the “best chicken in town”—fast, juicy, fragrant.
My father had been battling cancer for nearly three years when he died. But it wasn’t cancer that finally killed him. He killed himself. And he didn’t kill just himself. He also killed his mother and sister.
The bluest sky tends to turn to ash when I think about that fateful morning. My mother and I were standing around him in our house in the hills above Glendale. He was dressed in a white-colored silk suit that he hadn’t worn in 20 years—the weight loss from his cancer allowed him to finally fit into the grand garment. He seemed unusually radiant, as if he had swallowed three Red Bulls. “I am going to meet with my sister and mother,” he announced. It had been months since he had gone anywhere, so I asked him if he needed a ride, but he declined. I had kissed his hand the night before, and as if I had a premonition about what was going to happen the next day, I had told him I loved him. My mother and I wished him goodbye and he drove off.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was saying goodbye to my father for good. Unbeknownst to any of us, he had packed a 9-millimeter pistol into his waistband and a .38-caliber revolver in the pocket of his coat. He drove straight to the house where his sister and mother lived, about seven miles away, and knocked on the door of the million-dollar mansion on Oakmont Country Club. A housekeeper led him into the dining room on the second floor, where his 45-year-old sister, Dzovig, was standing. She offered him a glass of lemonade and they chatted about family affairs for about half an hour until their 76-year-old mother, Margrit, arrived.
My father’s sister sat across from him on the dining table, his mother to his right. The three spoke in calm voices, although not much was said, which wasn’t surprising, given that my father had not seen his mother or sister for more than two years. About five minutes into the meeting, just as something resembling a heated conversation was getting underway, my father pulled out the Browning 9-millimeter pistol from his waistband, reached over the table and fired a single shot into his sister’s head.
The bullet lifted her off her chair and deposited her face-down on the granite floor. Then my father turned to his mother, who was screaming and running toward the nearest door. He sprinted after his mother, overtook her and stood in front of her, gun pointing to her chest. “Don’t shoot—please,” she said in our family’s native Armenian language. “Please don’t shoot.”
The first bullet caught my grandmother in the chest. She reeled backward and fell to the floor. My father stood over her and pumped eight bullets into her body. Then he walked to a couch nearby in the living room, sat down, pointed the gun at his head, and pulled the trigger.
A few hours later, I got a call from my mother, who asked me to go to our house immediately. “Why, mom—what’s wrong?” I asked. She told me not to ask questions and to get home as fast as I could. Right away I knew something really bad had happened. “Your father is dead,” she said to me frantically in Armenian when I reached home. My three younger brothers were all standing there, looking utterly stunned and lost. I instantly thought our father had killed himself to end his medical suffering.
My brain immediately went into self-comfort mode. I was already convincing myself that maybe this was not so bad. I figured, “Good, I am glad he did it—at least cancer didn’t kill him.” And then my mother said: “And he killed his sister and mother, too.” My lips twisted into a weird smile, which gave way to a short but distinct burst of laughter. In hindsight, it was the only way I could cope with such horrible news. Full of nervous laughter and disbelief, I looked around in shock, hoping that this was some kind of stupid joke. But I intuitively knew it wasn’t.
Psychologists say that murder is a deeply ingrained human capacity that lurks inside all of us. We are capable of grievously harming or destroying even those we deeply love and who love us in return. In fact, people who are close to each other are often capable of harming each other more than those who aren’t emotionally close. It’s strange how quickly love turns to hate—a universal theme that can be found in literature and the daily news alike.
It didn’t take me long to figure out the reason for my father’s extreme actions. Throughout the nearly three years that he had been stricken with cancer, his mother and sister hadn’t come to see him. Not once. Nor had they enquired about his welfare. Although my father never said as much, he felt badly betrayed by his mother and sister. He felt as if they wanted him to die. Not long before the tragedy, something had transpired that had possibly turned their hearts to stone: In a family meeting, my father had disclosed his illness and announced that he would leave his restaurant empire to his four children—me and my three brothers, the youngest of whom was 17 years old at the time.
Instead of asking my father what kind of cancer he had or what the prognosis was, his mother questioned the wisdom of leaving Zankou to me and my brothers. It was a fair question, given that my father regarded his sister’s two sons as his own. But the timing couldn’t have been worse. It was clear to my father that his mother didn’t care for him. All she seemed to care about was the family’s fortune.
In many ways, my grandmother was the “cook in chief” of the family business. She was a natural-born chef with a God-given talent for cooking great food. Her arias pita—bread with ground beef, tomatoes and jalapenos baked in an oven—was so good that people couldn’t help stuffing themselves with the dish. I once ate so much that I got sick—that’s how good her food was. My mom even said that any food she touched turned to the culinary equivalent of gold.
My grandmother worked at Zankou every single day of the week, except Sunday. She loved the crisp cold mornings of Los Angeles. Early every day, she would go to our restaurant in Hollywood—the first of our branches here in the United States—on the corner of Sunset and Normandie. There, she would prepare Zankou’s signature garlic sauce. It was she who taught our chefs how to slow-cook much of the food that the Los Angeles Times has hailed as “the best in town at any price.” If it weren’t for her, it’s fair to say, the restaurant guide Zagat might not have applauded Zankou as one of “America’s best meal deals.” They once said, “Someone at Zankou must have been born knowing how to roast.” And although my father was also blessed with a great taste (and appetite) it was not as powerful as hers.
That’s not to say my father wasn’t hardworking. If his mother tinkered with the spices, it was he who tweaked the menu. If his mother cooked from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., he was the one who traveled to every single restaurant every day to personally ensure that customer service was top-notch. He counted the receipts, did the payroll and made sure that the accounts were all in order.
My father wasn’t just a hard worker. He was a good man. He donated a lot of money—hundreds of thousands of dollars—to local non-profit institutions, most of them backing Armenian cultural and humanitarian-based causes. He also gave to schools, starving artists and dance troupes. In fact, he was so generous that a cartoon in a local Armenian newspaper once showed two doors leading into Zankou—one for food, the other for philanthropy. At his funeral, we found out that he had paid to have an Arabic teenager put through school and college. But he never told us about it. Many others have since come forward with stories about how my dad helped them. He donated thousands to churches and even helped pay for one his friend’s cancer surgery.
He also donated his time—and our time. As kids, we hated it, but he used to force us to go to the local church, Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church in Pasadena, on Colorado Boulevard, and make a soup we call “Jidabour” in Armenian. Jidabour is made with minced meat, delicious spices, and grain. It’s an awesomely tasteful soup, but making it requires hours of strenuous work. He would make us stand around a kettle and turn large wooden spoons for hours. It reminded me of the old witches in black-and-white movies, making some sort of magical concoction. By the time the process is complete, the meat becomes so soft and chewy and delicious it practically melts in your mouth. But when you’re a teenager you really don’t want to be making soup at church all day, especially on a Sunday.
Instead of working in a soup kitchen, I wished we went hiking, walking or sailing—anything. And that’s the thing about my father—he was a great man and a respected person in the Armenian community, even if he wasn’t very close to his own family. He didn’t spend much time with us because he was always at work. And although he did love playing with us, he rarely spent time with my younger brothers, whose adolescence coincided with the expansion of the family business from a single restaurant in Hollywood to branches as far off as Anaheim and Van Nuys.
Looking back, I realize that my younger brothers didn’t know much of my father’s positive attitude or presence because they rarely got to see it. I hope not to be like my father in this respect—with some luck I expect to be more loving to my kids. At any rate, I expect to care more about my kids than politicians or institutions, neither of which will miss you when you die and your donations dry up.
Often, when we went out to eat as a family, my brothers and I would argue—or our father would be in a bad mood, almost as if he really didn’t want to be there. I think this is why, to this day, my siblings and I have a really hard time spending time with each other. Obviously, some of that is because of the extremely difficult and stressful roles we all have at the family business: It’s hard to separate the family from the business and not talk about work when we go out.
But I do blame my father for some of it. He really did not set the best example of spending good, quality time with the family. He preferred to be with his friends or off having real fun. I suppose such is the fate of a man who lived like a playboy and decided one day to get married and have four kids. Though he did love us, he just didn’t spend much quality time with us. It seems as though some Armenian parents assume love is shown through their hard work—not after it or in spite of it.
None of that is to say I didn’t love my father or appreciate him. But I do wish my brothers and I didn’t argue and bicker as much when we went out with him. The sad part is that now that he’s gone, we will never again have those opportunities.
My father was brought up by his father, an alcoholic who died of a heart attack at the age of 62 and whose own grandmother was a hardcore alcoholic. Although I never met my great grandparents, I heard they were really messed up because of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. And for many of us Armenians, that’s what it almost always goes back to—the government-sanctioned program of the Turkish Ottoman Empire to eliminate 3 million Armenians living in western Turkey and steal their land. More than 1.5 million Armenians perished—many of them my direct family.
Understandably, my grandfather did not show love toward my father. I remember that at my grandfather’s funeral my father showed little or no emotion. My grandmother, on the other hand, was crying and wailing. I think she was faking it—and that brings me to the role that she played in our family’s emotional turmoil and in my father’s wretched end.
My parents’ marital relationship was considerably strained—and the one person always stood in the way of their love was my grandmother. She was terribly possessive of my father, perhaps because she herself got little or no love from the man in her own life—her alcoholic husband. Still, you wouldn’t think that a man’s mother would begrudge her own son to be happy in marriage. But you would be wrong in my grandmother’s case. Not only would she exploit every opportunity to make my parents fight with each other, she was often very jealous of my mother.
A whole book—or three—could be written about my grandmother’s complicated personality. She was the kind of person Freud probably had in mind when he made the sweeping, prejudicial statement that after years of studying the human mind he still couldn’t figure out what it is that women want. My grandmother didn’t just ruin my parents’ relationship. She also poisoned my father’s ties with his sister. I’m convinced that after my father was diagnosed with cancer, he felt bad about how his mother had exploited him against his own wife and his sister, robbing him of close intimacy with them. He realized that his mother was the source of all his marital troubles. But it was too late.
Looking back, the best thing my father left me and my brothers was an opportunity. He did not leave us a lot of money. He left us four stores. We now have eight (plus three others that are owned by my slain aunt’s family). We have an opportunity to take Zankou Chicken from a relatively small family chain to a large legacy business.
We also have an opportunity to honor our father’s memory by doing three things. Because he hated it when his sons argued and fought with each other, we would do well to try to get along. That, to my mind, is the most important thing we can do to pay tribute to our father. The second thing we can do is to take good care of our mother, the one woman among many in his life who stood faithfully by his side until the bitter end. Finally, we should work hard and take our family business to the next level.
Every family has issues and goes through tough times. When you add the fact that the family also runs a business, life becomes very difficult. My hope is that we can grow closer as a family, go through a healing process, and become better people. I would also hope we treat the family business as a separate entity. That would allow us to better connect with our own lives. And our children.
[iii] White House Archives
Photo credit: Ajay Singh
Copyright 2014, Dikran Iskenderian. No version of this blog may be reproduced in any form without the author’s written consent. This blog represents the author’s views only and may not necessarily represent the views of Zankou Chicken, its board, its associates and employees, managers, and customers. Please do not reproduce without permission. Thank You.